Do you need answers or light?


Fourth Sunday of Lent - John 9:1-41

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

“Why is there so much suffering and pain?”

“Why do children suffer, even die?

"Why are Good people taken?"

"Why the road of suffering for some and not another?"

These are your questions. When I invited you all to write down your questions for God a few months ago, nearly half of you asked some version of the question:

Why so much suffering?”

Whether it is the suffering of those you love, or the general suffering of the world. Whether your own deep, scarring pain of loss, or the apparent arbitrary injustice of it all … you want to know WHY?

I do too! Because it is so hard to understanding why a Good and Loving God would allow such horrible pain – why doesn’t God just…. FIX THINGS?! The pain it bad enough, but it’s even worse when we don’t understand WHY?!

That need to know why – the need to assuage the sense of violation from undeserved pain and the unsettling fear of arbitrary suffering is nothing new. It has been around since long before Jesus walked the roads of Judea with his disciples, and his disciples had learned the answer that so many people, and so many faiths (including Christianity) have taught down through the ages.

"Suffering must be punishment. It must be a result of sin…"

Because then, when we see suffering, when we feel the creeping edge of fear that comes from standing too close to pain… the best thing to do is to look for someone to blame. If we can see who is at fault, we can try to avoid what they did, and thereby avoid their suffering.

But Jesus takes away that answer to the question “why.”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

That’s not how it works. This man’s life, with all the challenges and poverty brought on by not being able to see… it’s nobody’s fault. There is no one to blame.

And that can be good news if you are the one suffering and worrying that you did something to bring this on yourself, except… it doesn’t answer the question. We still want to know why?

Some translators of this story have tried to fill in the gaps to provide that answer. The version we just read has Jesus explain: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed to him.” But there are two problems with this answer:

  1. First – it makes God out to be pretty heartless. God blighted this man’s entire childhood and subjected him to a life of begging until he met Jesus, just so that Jesus could perform a miracle? Does his years of suffering not matter, because it served the greater good?

Theologians have a term for this kind of explanation – they call it “redemptive suffering.” The idea is that suffering can be justified if it leads to something good.

I have held onto this kind of explanation at times in my life – looking for the good that would come out of my pain, and finding some comfort from that idea… but still wondering why there couldn’t be another way… and feeling uncomfortable that my ability to see God’s work should come at a high price for others. This does not seem like God’s justice.

  1. But even more importantly, this translation adds a whole phrase that is NOT THERE in the original Greek – the phrase in verse three “this man was born blind.”

What the gospel writer actually wrote (minus the words and punctuation missing from the original) is: “neither this man nor his parents sinned so that God’s works might be revealed in him we must work the works of him who sent me…”

The translators added in the punctuation, and an entire phrase, to interpret “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” as applying to the circumstance of his having been born blind.

But that’s not the best way to interpret this story. Hear how Eugene Peterson’s interpretation in The Message reads:

“Jesus said, ‘You’re asking the wrong questions. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here…”

That’s a really different response.

In this reading, the suffering is not part of some “bigger plan.” The blindness happened, with no explanation, and Jesus tells his disciples that asking “why” is the wrong question.

Instead he says, "when you see suffering, don’t look for who is to blame. Instead, look for what God can do, and even more, look for how God might want to use you in that work."

Given the number of you who asked the “why” question, I expect this answer might be just as unsatisfactory as “it’s all part of God’s plan.” After all, Jesus didn’t answer the question – he just said “it’s the wrong one.”

Thankfully, the story does not stop there. Rather, verses 6 through 41 continue to grapple with the need to know why, and with the consequences of that need.

It’s a long story, so let me just sum up:

After Jesus tells his disciples that the right questions is “how can I be about God’s works” he does that work, albeit in a strange way. He spits in the dirt, kneading it into mud (which is a violation of the Sabbath laws) and spreads this mud on the man’s eyes – telling him to go and wash in a pool. Jesus then leaves, and the man does as Jesus instructed… and suddenly he can see!

It is a miracle – completely beyond explanation – but all the people he then encounters demand an explanation.

  • First his neighbors want to know if this is really him.

They have all seen him before – probably passed him on the road every day of his adult life. If they had ever troubled to look at him properly, surely, they could not have doubted his identity. But it seems easier to believe that some stranger has taken his place in their town, than to believe God could have healed him.

  • So they take him to the Pharisees, but this just makes the question of explanations more fraught.

The Pharisees are sure they know how God works, and when they learn that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, violating their understanding of God’s law, they have to choose between their laws – their system for judging sin – and the miracle.

Their theology clashes with the evidence of this man’s opened eyes – so they question the miracle. They call his parents and demand from them an explanation for this impossibility of healing performed by a “sinner.”

  • But that demand is a set-up.

There is no way for the man’s parents to confirm the obvious miracle without denying the Pharisee’s dearly held belief that their Sabbath laws are equivalent to God’s righteousness. So they avoid the question – to which there is no safe answer – and turn it back on their son.

  • So the Pharisees challenge him again, with this telling phrase:

“Give Glory to God!”

They mean it as a self-protective measure, a way to align themselves with God and make it clear that those who disagree with them are rejecting God’s own glory.

But, we as readers, get to see the irony. Because giving glory to God is exactly what they refuse to do.

That is the consequence of demanding explanations – the explanations become the object.

God’s glory isn’t what they are focused on. They are focused on getting to decide who is a sinner. By clinging to their explanations of how God works...

their authority to declare Jesus and this man as a sinner…

their need to be able to answer the question of “why suffering” by pointing to other people’s sin…

by wanting the clarity of certain answers more than they want to be part of the works of God…

they fail to give God glory for the miracle of healing that is staring them in the eyes.

In fact, their need for the safety of certainty, their need to know how God works, makes them blind to what God is doing.

But when Jesus finally re-enters the scene he doesn’t ask the man what he knows. He asks the man if he believes – because spiritual sight is not about having answers to every question, it’s about trust.

Before healing the man born blind, Jesus tells his disciples “I am the Light of the World.” At the end of this story – he describes what that light looks like.

Jesus is not a light that answers every question, so that we can feel secure in the certainty of what we see.

Jesus is not the kind of light that we can shine in whatever direction we want to see, making everything clear for us.

No, Jesus is the kind of light that illuminates us when we look at him… and when we know that without him we are blind.

One commentator on this passage writes that “to cure this blindness it was necessary that (Jesus) must suffer and die at the hands of humankind and be raised on the third day by God. Only the Forgiving Victim of our originating sin could begin to open our eyes to such darkness.”[1]

When we see suffering, our instinct is to interpret it as redemptive, because then it makes sense, but there is only one act of redemptive suffering, the ultimate work for which Christ was sent.

And that is why, every, single week we go to the table to receive the meal that Christ offers us. The meal that reminds us that whether or not we understand our suffering we never suffer alone, because Christ suffers with us… and Christ’s suffering brings resurrection for us all.

In this story Jesus does not answer the question of why we suffer, but he does promise to take away our blindness.

Not so that we can see the world as we want it to be, but so that we can see the Light who calls us to share in the works of God, knowing that Christ shares our suffering… and we share his forgiveness.

Thanks be to God. AMEN

[1] James Alison, “The Johannine Witness”, quoted in the Girardian Lectionary: http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/lent4a/

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